I am a very private person,” says Marjane Satrapi, author of “Persepolis” and co-director of the new film based on her graphic novels. It’s a curious statement coming from someone who’s poured her own life into an autobiographical novel, but as she repeatedly pointed out to The Japan Times, it’s not a tell-all. And as someone who’s given us a glimpse into an Iran rarely seen in the West, Satrapi also adds, “I don’t want to be the voice of a generation.” She seems suitably Gallic these days, though, chain-smoking and motor-mouthing her way through a very animated interview.
Did you approach the film differently from the books?
Yes — it was a question of making a script based on the code of the cinema, and not that of comics anymore. They’re very similar (media), yet very different.
How difficult was it to edit four books down into 95 minutes?
It was hard. At first, the script was twice what we ended up with. We wrote too much, and then we cut into it. Maybe you have a scene that expresses an idea, and then another one expressing the same idea, so you have to cut one and take the best one. But that’s the result of three years of work. You just have to try a lot of things. It’s also a question of rhythm, the movie just can’t go sad-sad-sad-sad. You have to have it go both up and down.
Is it harder to edit when it’s your own life? Aren’t you more attached to the events?
Oh, no. I did that when I was writing the books. It’s 16 years of my life in 400 pages of comics. If that was everything, then I’ve had a very miserable life! But you know, this isn’t a documentary about my life. From the second you make a story, it becomes fictional, whether you want it to or not. Because in order to write the story, you have to cheat a little bit. It’s based on my own life, but I am not in search of reality. I am looking for a kind of truth, which is not the same thing.
But the film does give the illusion of being autobiographical.
Yes, but it’s just an illusion! For example, the character Marcus (Marjane’s boyfriend in the movie): from my point of view, he’s a total a**hole. But if you ask his point of view, I was a total a**hole too, and he is right! Because this guy was just 19 years old, and I asked him to be everything for me, and he just couldn’t do it. So here’s the dilemma: I have a way to express myself; this guy — whose name is not Marcus — he doesn’t.
For me, I can’t have a duel with someone who doesn’t have any weapon to defend himself. So that’s why I change everything, and I disguise the truth. But there’s this confusion, people think everything is true. People ask, which part is the truth? It’s like asking a cook, “What is your recipe?” Of course I won’t say it. This is my private life, and I’m a very private person. Privacy is something good, no?
What are your goals as an artist?
We tried to make something that is entertainment, but intelligent at the same time. We have artistic ideas about things, but “Persepolis” is not something that only a few people can watch. That’s probably also why I make comics, because it’s popular art.
I come from painting, but the problem with painting always was, who was it who buys paintings? It’s people who have too much money, they’re bourgeois — and basically bourgeois people hate artists, because if the artist “wins,” then their whole meaning of life is just destroyed.
What other graphic novels have influenced your style?
I have never been a big comics reader. “Maus” was the first comic I read that influenced me — it showed me that comics were a medium for telling this sort of story. But my influences come as much from Dostoevski or Flaubert or Primo Levi. Again, he was just asking questions, never giving answers, and that’s why he’s still read today. For the visual form, the relationship of black and white and the shadows, it was very much about German Expressionism, people such as (directors) F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang. But for comics, I do read people like Dan Clowes or Robert Crumb.
Was music better for you when it was harder to get, during the post-revolution period?
Whatever is forbidden is better. Always better. But also, after 1979, (the Iranian regime of the time) really closed the country to everything from the outside. So listening to the music of the day was a way of keeping contact with the outside. Of course, all teenagers love music, but for us it was almost like life or death. To have a Kim Wilde poster in your room, that would be like the coolest thing.
I remember a cleric explaining the ban on music by saying it created “unusual happy feelings.” What’s unusual about being happy?
All the repressive regimes do it. The Nazis banned jazz for the same reason. It’s not so much that it’s bad, it’s a question of making you scared. Take the veil thing: they say that the hair of women sends waves that will give erections to men. OK, fine. So then if I show 2 cm of hair or 10 cm of hair, what’s the difference? It will “send waves.” But 2 cm is tolerated. But when I have to worry about that, I won’t think about the other things. They just want you in a state of constant fear, so they can use you and abuse you.
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